While I was researching my post on the odd hobbies of famous entrepreneurs, I ran across the tidbit that the ceiling of the library in Bill Gates's home features an engraved quote from The Great Gatsby.
After reading this, it occurred to me that favorite classic novels seem to be about business, entrepreneurs and the nature of capitalism. Here's my list:
Author: James Clavell
Plot Summary: An upper-class British officer befriends a lower class American who's become the chief wheeler-dealer among the inmates of a Japanese prison camp.
Opening lines: "Changi was set like a pearl on the eastern tip of Singapore Island, iridescent under the bowl of tropical skies. It stood on a slight rise and around it was a belt of green, and farther off the green gave way to the blue-green seas and the seas to infinity of horizon. Close, Changi lost its beauty and became what it was--an obscene forbidding prison. Cellblocks surrounded by sun-baked courtyards surrounded by towering walls. Inside the walls, inside the cellblocks, story on story, were cells for two thousand prisoners at capacity. Now, in the cells and in the passageways and in every nook and cranny lived some eight thousand men--English and Australian mostlya few New Zealanders and Canadians--the remnant of the armed forces of the Far East campaign. There men too were criminals. Their crime was vast. They had lost a war. And they had lived."
My Take: Most people know Clavell as the author of the historical epic Shogun. However, I've always liked this, his first book, better. Every character is well-drawn, the setting is exotic and yet somehow familiar, and the action is crisp and linear.
Factoid: The movie version ends with an unintentionally funny confrontation between George Segal (from Just Shoot Me!) and Richard Dawson (from Family Feud.)
Author: Theodore Dreiser.
Plot Summary: The ambitious but poor cousin of an rich manufacturer murders a factory girl to hide her pregnancy from a rich girl whom he intends to marry.
Opening Lines: "Dusk--of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants--such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable. And up the broad street, now comparatively hushed, a little band of six,--a man of about fifty, short, stout, with bushy hair protruding from under a round black felt hat, a most unimportant-looking person, who carried a small portable organ such as is customarily used by street preachers and singers. And with him a woman perhaps five years his junior, taller, not so broad, but solid of frame and vigorous, very plain in face and dress, and yet not homely, leading with one hand a small boy of seven and in the other carrying a Bible and several hymn books. With these three, but walking independently behind was a girl of fifteen, a boy of twelve and another girl of nine, all following obediently, but not too enthusiastically, in the wake of the others."
My Take: While the writing is a little thick around the edges, it's a fascinating look into the culture and class structure of American business, which hasn't changed all that much in 90 years.
Factoid: There have been a number of movies based on the book (including one by Woody Allen) but they have all been real stinkers.
Author: Tom Wolff
Plot Summary: A bond trader driving with his mistress injures a young black man, thereby creating a cascade of legal trouble fueled by racial politics.
Opening lines (after Prologue): "At that very moment, in the very sort of Park Avenue co-op apartment that so obsessed the Mayor...twelve-foot ceilings...two wings, one for the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant who own the place and one for the help...Sherman McCoy was knelling in his front hall trying to put a leash on a dachshund. The floor was a deep green marble, and it went on and on. It led to a five-foot-wide walnut staircase that swept up in a sumptuous curve to the floor above. It was the sort of apartment that mere thought of which ignites flames of greed and covetousness under people all over New York and, for that matter, all over the world. But Sherman burned only with the urge to get out of this fabulous spread of his for thirty minutes."
My Take: This deeply cynical and incredibly readable novel simultaneously skewers the cultures of Wall Street and of Political Correctness. It also captures the late 1980s more vividly than any other novel, or any film for that matter. (Even Wall Street.)
Factoid: The title of the first chapter was the first time the term "Masters of the Universe" was applied to Wall Street traders.
Author: Margaret Mitchell
Plot Summary: A beguiling woman obsessed with an unobtainable man survives and prospers during and after the American Civil War.
Opening Lines: "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyese were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin--that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns."
My Take: While undeniably one of best and most-readable historical novels of all time, the "history" part is seen through a heavy-handed white supremacist lens. While the main flow of events (like the Civil War battles) are accurate, the book's interpretation of Reconstruction is revisionist and racist balderdash. If you want to really know what happened during after the Civil War, I recommend The Fall of the House of Dixie.
Factoid: The funniest scene in the book is the outrage that the citizens of Atlanta feel when it's revealed that the heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, can (gasp!) do mathematics in her head.
Author: Gabriel Garca Mrquez
Plot Summary: A enterprising family in a South American village weathers war and vast economic change.
Opening Lines: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point."
My Take: While business is not the central theme, the economic development of the South America drives both the metamorphosis of the village and the family. The book is written a style called "magical reality" where the fantastical and the mundane events are mixed to create an original but epic myth. Note: The currently available iBook of this novel is an uncorrected and unedited scan that frequently lapses into gibberish. Don't buy it; read a printed version instead.
Factoid: The name of every male character in each generation is a variation of either Aureliano or Arcadio. And atch out for those ants!
Readers: Any others that should be on this list?